I had high expectations for this book because I had heard so much about it, and I suppose as is often the case when you have expectations about something, the book did not quite live up to them. Not that it was bad; on the contrary, it’s a very good book. It’s just that the cyberpunk genre has become kind of cliché at this point and even though this was the book that launched the genre, it ended up feeling old. I suspect that had I read it 30 years ago, I would have had a completely different experience.
The book is about a hacker and a samurai attempting to “jack in” to an artificial intelligence (AI) program. Much of the book takes place in cyberspace, or the matrix. Yeah, if you didn’t know already, the book influenced the films, which made it hard for me not to picture Keanu Reeves jumping around and overacting.
“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space was faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”
For me, the most interesting aspects of the book deal with consciousness and memory. Human memory is described using the holographic model, which is a concept that I accept. I do not think of consciousness and memory as linear, but instead as existing everywhere at all times. The challenge is access.
“I don’t have this good a memory,” Case said, looking around. He looked down at his hands, turning them over. He tried to remember what the lines on his palm were like, but couldn’t.
“Everybody does,” the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, “ but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good. If you could lay this construct over the reality, the Finn’s place in lower Manhattan, you’d see a difference, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Memory’s holographic, for you.” The Finn tugged at one of his small ears. “I’m different.”
“How do you mean, holographic?” The word made him think of Riviera.
“The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve worked out to a representation of human memory, is all. But you’ve never done anything about it. People, I mean.” The Finn stepped forward and canted his streamlined skull to peer up at Case. “Maybe if you had, I wouldn’t be happening.”
One of the questions that challenges us in the cyber age is whether consciousness can exist in a machine, or an AI. In the book, Gibson hints that probably, true human consciousness requires flesh in order to exist, that it is somehow encoded into our cellular and genetic makeup.
It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.
Is it possible that eventually an AI will develop consciousness? What will a conscious machine look like? How will that affect humanity? These are questions that have terrified and fascinated people for a long time. I suppose it is possible. And questions like these, which percolate to the surface as you read this book, are what make this book worth reading. If you are like me, you will have to overlook the parts that now feel cliché and hackneyed, but if you can do that, you will find some interesting and challenging concepts to explore.
Cheers, and thanks for stopping by.